When you’re starting your undergraduate career, one of the most daunting and potentially frustrating questions is, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Some people seem to have this all figured out from birth; others (me) spend 4 years if not more researching, experimenting, volunteering, shadowing, taking classes, etc. to figure that out. Then one day, it comes to you. You’ve known you wanted to get involved in the medical field but have narrowed down the possibilities (medical school, dental school, pharmacy school, nursing school, physical therapy programs, all the other post-graduate programs), and you’ve decided you want to become a physician assistant! Now what? You scramble. You look up programs, research admissions requirements, make sure you have your classes in order, figure out how many hours you’re going to need, ask friends and family who are in programs, research blogs, pray, whatever. It’s hectic, and you’re not really sure how to get into a program or what to expect once you’re there. If you’re currently there like all the rest of us were at some point, hopefully this blog can help you out a little bit.
Before we get too deep into this, let me throw the disclaimer out there that I am no expert on this process. I’m simply a student in a physician assistant program who’s successfully gone through the process of applying and is now trying to successfully work my way through the program. That being said, I’ve gone through the aforementioned steps, so I’ll try to organize this blog in a manner that addresses the most common questions I see from prospective PA students. I’ll skip the intros and “what is a PA?” because there are plenty of other blogs out there addressing those points specifically. So let’s start with:
HOW DO I GET IN?
This is the hard part. Getting into a program is very difficult at this point, and it’s only getting harder. You’ll want to make sure you’re the best candidate you can be when applying. Every program is different, but most of them have the same general requirements. Figure out the programs you want to apply to based upon reputation, location, facilities, word of mouth, etc., and find any program’s specific requirements on their websites or by calling them. For me, it was important to go to a program in a city I could live in (preferably Nashville, TN) with credible and accomplished faculty and graduates, so I made lists of programs and requirements based on that criteria. The bare-bones framework of most programs I researched was the following needed: a bachelor’s, high overall GPA, high science GPA, minimum GRE score (usually around 300), successful completion of core science courses (bios, chems, calculus, molecular bio, anatomy, physiology, any labs, biochem, orgo, psychology, medical terminology, etc.), recommendations, and hours. I’ve heard that the GRE score and sometimes recommendations are more of a formality (although still necessary), but the other requirements are very important. Required classes may change based on programs, but the more you’ve successfully completed with a decent grade, the better (side note: not all classes need to be completed at the same institution, so if you already graduated and are missing a class, don’t rule out PA school as an option. I took a couple pre-reqs post-grad at a local school and was fine). Hours are also huge. You want to show programs that you’ve gotten the necessary experience to attach real world application to your brain power from all those classes. Most programs want to see “direct patient care” hours, and they like to see that you’ve worked specifically with mid-level practitioners (i.e. PA’s). Unfortunately, volunteering and medical mission trips don’t always cut it for this requirement (although they look nice on your resume and are great talking points). You’ll want to look into things like scribing or becoming a CNA, MA, or EMT. Once you have everything you’ll need, take it on over to CASPA (the online application) and get it all submitted ASAP. Watch out for secondary requirements from programs (research on their website IN ADDITION to what CASPA tells you—I made that mistake once) and keep your due dates on track. Then you wait.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I GET AN INTERVIEW?
In my opinion, now the hard part is over. Schools will get your application, review it, and then start creating interview schedules. If you’ve met the requirements and stand out as a candidate, a program may extend an invitation to interview. This is HUGE. This means the program already has their eye on you and is impressed with what they’ve seen. Don’t be over confident, but keep in mind that the program may be trying to sell themselves to you just as must as you are trying to sell yourself to the program. So just be yourself. Be friendly and personable, keeping in mind that they’re evaluating your personality and aptitude toward the profession as they already have your resume and credentials. Be ready for tough questions, essays, and potential scenarios. Have a thought-out and bomb answer ready to “Why do you want to be a PA?” or “What about this profession peaked your interest?” because you will absolutely get asked (DO NOT tell them you wanted to go to a “shorter med school” because you will not go far). While you’re at the interview, try to get a feel for what the program has to offer you, and constantly ask yourself if you feel comfortable and as if you feel as though you can be successful where you are. The answer might be no, and that’s important in guiding your future decisions if you’re accepted. Try to talk to current students while you’re there, and get a feel for they think as that may be you in a year.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO NOT GET IN ANYWHERE MY FIRST TIME APPLYING?
Unfortunately, yes. There are not a lot of PA programs, and most of them take an average of 50 students per year from thousands of applicants. If you don’t meet minimum requirements, the program will not bend rules to accept you. If you meet the requirements but aren’t the best candidate, you may not get in. You might even meet all the requirements and be a top candidate going into the interview, and the program may feel you’re not the right fit. All of these are okay. You’ll get feedback, and you just move forward from there. I have plenty of friends (even in my own program) who did not get into a school their first time applying, adjusted their lives, retook classes, got more patient hours, reapplied, and got into several programs. Sometimes, you may just need a little extra time to shape yourself into the absolute best candidate to not only get into a program, but also be successful once you’re there.
IF I GET IN, THEN WHAT?
Wooooo! Commence your 2.5 year celebration because the hard part is over, right? WRONG. Honestly, so wrong. Could not even be more wrong. PA school is so, so, so difficult. Having graduated with honors from the University of Florida and having successfully completely a Teach For America commitment post-grade while getting a Master’s degree, I never expected PA school to be my “biggest challenge,” and I could not have been more ignorantly misguided. There’s a reason you don’t know a PA student who thinks their program is easy and you hear the phrase “drinking water from a firehose” so often. It’s the real deal. I’m currently in my third semester taking 27 credit hours (after a previous 27 credit hour semester) having had a quiz or exam literally every single day for the last 3 weeks without a break. My daily schedule consists of going to class from 8AM-5PM (sometimes later), getting a quick workout in, and studying at a coffee shop til they close. Then I go home, cook something up real quick, shower, sleep (sometimes), and repeat. Weekends included. Time management will be key. You’ll have to figure out when your brain is most active and prone to learning and retaining new material. You may have to form study groups in order to talk out information on the thousands of PowerPoint slides you’ll get each week. You may have to give up on some social activities or learn to plan dinners with friends or family weeks in advance. But it’s so worth it. The education you’ll get is top-notch, and if what all of my friends and family who have done this before me say is true, you’ll come out of this prepared to be a medical practitioner helping people on a daily basis and potentially saving lives. It’s not easy, but it’s manageable. And with the end goal in mind, you’ll push through, and you’ll be golden. Good luck!
Kevin is a 1st year Physician Assistant student from Fort Lauderdale, FL currently studying in Nashville, TN. His time is split 85% studying and 15% eating, exercising, sleeping, surfing, reading, exploring the US, and binge-watching TV, as can be seen on Instagram.